How This Founder Embraced His Critics and Raised $75 Million for a Mammoth Moonshot
Ben Lamm had founded and sold five companies by the time he teamed up with Harvard geneticist George Church to create the Boston- and Austin-based bioscience startup Colossal. He’d amassed plenty of experience raising funding from venture-capital investors over the years. But this time, it was different.
Colossal Bioscience was founded to take some of Church’s innovative technology and scientific process out of the university research lab and speed it up with the investment. The true goal driving the company though, Lamm tells Inc.’s What I Know podcast, was a moonshot: to bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction. The synthetic biology and wealth of innovations involved in the effort have many other useful applications, from mitigating climate change to protecting endangered species to human healthcare.
What Colossal was lacking was a business model. Luckily, that wasn’t a problem when pitching investors, Lamm explains: “In the seed round, the business plan was, ‘Hey, George and I are going to build a synthetic biology company that’s going to bring back mammoths and help create thoughtful, disruptive conservation technologies. And we think we can do some stuff for humans.’ That was the pitch.” Lamm and Church had approached investors secretly, aiming to raise an $8 million round of seed funding. They ended up raising more than $16 million.
Colossal has since gone on to raise more than $75 million. While Lamm can laugh that the business model still isn’t crystal clear yet, he says the company is working on several disruptive technologies that could have massive implications for not just conservation, but human health, fetal development, and even entertainment value.
Entertainment value? Lamm says he expects when, in four to six years, his company has created a living woolly-mammoth-like creature, there will be a “consumer experience” arm to his company. While the Colossal’s goal for the mammoth de-extinction project is arctic re-wilding, Lamm says the team wants the first calves to be available for humanity to see. Educational content, such as books, television shows, and games could follow.
In part because re-creating a species is controversial, Colossal is operating with radical transparency to the public. “We’ve been very vocal about it because we want everyone from the general public to government officials to Indigenous people groups to be involved in what we’re doing,” Lamm says. He’s also radically open to criticism: “You learn more from people that are questioning you. So we welcome that. That dialogue, we don’t run from it, we run towards it. It really helps us shape how we do things better.”
That approach is related to a philosophy he holds dear, one that has helped drive him to start company after company. ” I think anything worth doing is pretty hard, so it doesn’t really deter me.”